UBC’s vision

UBC’s vision provided a consistent touchstone for the work of the Learning Exchange. The consultation and planning process that Martha Piper initiated when she became UBC’s President in 1997 was the impetus for the university’s commitment to connect more intentionally with communities beyond the campus, especially the Downtown Eastside. The resulting Trek vision created an opening in the field of the university’s activity that allowed the Learning Exchange to take root. This opening would not have existed without the Trek vision.

The Learning Exchange moved into that open space (which could be considered a small crack in the armour of the institution and a leverage point for change). We populated the space with new and unusual activities. Because the Learning Exchange was a unique initiative that connected directly to the new vision, the President and her executive took an interest in how it was unfolding. When I was offered opportunities to report on our progress, I eagerly accepted (e.g., I gave an annual presentation and written report to UBC’s Board of Governors). I also created opportunities to get the President and members of her executive out into the community to see what we were doing. For example, I took Martha Piper on a tour of some of the agencies where students were volunteering and had her speak with students about what they were learning. We also invited members of the executive to attend Learning Exchange events, especially those related to Reading Week projects.

A feedback loop

Our efforts to keep the leaders of the university informed about what we were doing led to important outcomes. Although the first iteration of the Trek vision statement itself did not explicitly include concepts such as global citizenship or the strengthening of civil society, these concepts were being discussed where the vision was being taken seriously, including among the university executive and within some student groups. When the vision was refined n 2004-2005, these concepts were incorporated into a more explicit statement of UBC’s aspirations. UBC’s renewed vision statement, called Trek 2010, was:

The University of British Columbia, aspiring to be one of the world’s best universities, will prepare students to become exceptional global citizens, promote the values of a civil and sustainable society, and conduct outstanding research to serve the people of British Columbia, Canada, and the world.

Martha Piper
Martha Piper at the Learning Exchange’s fifth birthday party (photo copyright UBC)

Martha told me that this re-invigoration of the Trek vision and its accompanying list of goals and strategies had been influenced by what the Learning Exchange had achieved. She said, “The Learning Exchange showed us what is possible. You showed us what community engagement looks like.” I am not claiming that the Learning Exchange was the only or even a predominant force in the restatement of the Trek vision. There were many forces at work, including the university’s strong commitment to sustainability. But the Learning Exchange was one piece of the puzzle. By this time, because of its success, the Learning Exchange had become a high profile “signature initiative” that exemplified what UBC meant by community engagement.

Thinking of this process from the point of view of how system change happens, the vision and its expression, the Learning Exchange, can be seen as two ends of a mutually reinforcing feedback loop. The university articulated a vision that created an opening (the original Trek 2000 vision). The Learning Exchange moved into the open space and made it larger. The university liked what it saw and created an even bigger space, with more clear definitions of what its boundaries were (the Trek 2010 vision). This gave the Learning Exchange more scope and stronger language to use as a springboard.

A starting point for learning

The Learning Exchange staff team used the Trek vision as a reference point for everything we did. The vision gave us language to explain the underlying rationale for our activities. That language made it easier to articulate the outcomes we were trying to achieve. In addition, the vision challenged us to be more clear about what we were doing and why.

The staff team spent considerable time thinking about what global citizenship really means. Although others in the university were trying to formulate an “official” definition of global citizenship, I was pretty sure that any definition would be contested. I feared a debate about semantic nuances would divert attention away from the impulse to effect change.

Instead of waiting for an official definition of the term, my team identified what we thought were the key qualities of global citizenship, taking into account what others were saying. We began asserting that our goal was “to promote global citizenship through local action.” We figured this effort applied both to students we worked with and participants in storefront programs. We said that we were encouraging people to:

  • Think critically
  • Solve problems
  • Communicate well
  • Understand other social groups
  • Value diversity
  • Understand interdependence
  • Work with others for positive change.

This list of qualities gave us criteria against which to assess our activities and their outcomes. Was a given Community Service Learning project going to give students the opportunity to think critically, solve problems, and work with others for positive change? Were participants and facilitators in the English as a Second Language (ESL) program becoming more appreciative of diversity through their participation in the conversation groups?

We also used the Trek vision as a starting point for conversations with students about why and how to engage with local community issues. For example, when students were being oriented to their Reading Week Community Service Learning (CSL) projects, we would talk about the commitment to global citizenship in UBC’s vision. We encouraged students to ask critical questions about what this concept means. We used different approaches to get students thinking. For example, one year, during the speech that opened the kick-off event, I asked students to talk with the student beside them about what kind of person they wanted to be when they grew up (whether they felt they were there already or not). I asked them to consider how those qualities related to the concept of global citizenship. I encouraged students to look for moments during their Reading Week project when they felt they were practicing the qualities of global citizenship. I encouraged students especially to think about what kinds of relationships global citizens have with the people around them. My intention was to inspire students to become more aware of seemingly small acts and interactions, to understand that even small actions matter in the grand scheme of things.

Similarly, the Learning Exchange staff team used the idea that UBC was trying to promote the values of a civil and sustainable society as an inspiration for reflection and a challenge in relation to our way of doing things. We asked ourselves, “What exactly are the values of a civil and sustainable society?” We wondered how we could embody these values. (See the next two articles for our answers: Building Organizational Culture and Five Core Practices.) We also wondered whether a society that produces the distress that is so obvious in the Downtown Eastside really qualifies as a “civil society” and whether such a society is worthy of being sustained. (See my reflections on social marginalization for more on these questions.)

For the Learning Exchange staff team, the key elements of UBC’s Trek vision were all connected. By supporting students to develop their commitment to engage in community issues, we believed civil society would be strengthened in both the short and long term. By encouraging students to become global citizens who understood the dynamics of social marginalization, we believed the collective motivation to build a just and sustainable society would grow. By supporting marginalized people to contribute to their own community (e.g., through the ESL program), individuals’ sense of themselves as citizens grew and the local community got stronger. Through all these activities, examples of inclusive strategies for change were being developed. More importantly, the Trek vision articulated aspirations that continually challenged the Learning Exchange team to push the boundaries of both our understanding and our capacity to take action.

A magnetic attractor

There was another way in which UBC’s vision was instrumental to the success of the Learning Exchange and Community Service Learning. The Trek 2010 vision drew Stephen Toope to UBC to succeed Martha Piper. In fact, President Toope said publicly that the Learning Exchange was one of the reasons he decided to come to UBC. Professor Toope instituted a renewal of UBC’s vision after he took office. Some of the strategic actions and priorities changed with the resulting Place and Promise strategic plan, but the essence of the vision persisted.

Professor Toope worked hard to align the university’s budget decisions with its stated vision. It was the fact that the Learning Exchange was so closely tied to the university’s vision and had so successfully demonstrated what community engagement is that its operations and plans for further growth became institutionalized in the university’s budget.

For the next chapter in The Learning Exchange Story go to Building organizational culture.